Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Spirit of Liberty

Today is Election Day in America. It is a celebration day. We participate in the act of choosing our leader and by exercising the privilege of that franchise, we reaffirm our credo that we are a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

It is a heartening day after so much darkness. Long lines of voters waited hours in Philadelphia last night to see President Obama introduce Hillary Clinton at a rally at Independence Hall. The symbolism of the location couldn't have been better. 

When I first got interested in politics, the talk was all about the apathetic voter, disengaged and uninterested in participating. 

Happily, that is no longer the case. Voter turnout continues to rise. People are re-engaged. They realize their vote matters. Democracy, for all its weak points, is still getting healthier. Contrary to common wisdom, this election is no exception. 

Donald Trump will, I sincerely hope, be defeated at the polls today. Still, his darkness and shadow will loom long over our land. If he did anything, he proved that the underpinnings of freedom itself can be tested. It is then up to the People to defend them through the processes and procedures we have agreed upon to rule ourselves. This is one of the things this election will be remembered for. Still, his brand of hate has frightened us all. 

It brought to mind the words of an ancestor of mine. Like others in my family, I hold with pride the name Learned Hand. He was a distinguished American jurist and member of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York for many years. He had a precise, penetrating and supple mind that he used to understand the issues of law and society. A towering figure on the federal bench, he was often referred to as "the tenth Justice," implying a stature equal to those on the Supreme Court.

In 1944, during the height of World War Two, Hand gave his most famous remarks at an event in New York's Central Park called "I am an American Day." That speech was given the name "The Spirit of Liberty." 

Never did I think that Hand's words would apply to a moment in American history that I lived through. They seemed just a part of the past, relevant to the perils of fascism in Europe and the huge sacrifices Americans were making at home and abroad to rid the world of this scourge. On this, I was wrong. These last 18 months have shown that his words are as relevant now. He spoke about events of his time, but he also spoke about ideas that transcend time. It is worth us reflecting on his attempt to understand what it means to be free and what Americanness confers on us, for those of us who have the privilege to call ourselves that today, and those who wish to join that club tomorrow.

Here is Hand's speech, "The Spirit of Liberty," as it was delivered in 1944 in New York City:

We have gathered here to affirm a faith, a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion. Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. For this reason we have some right to consider ourselves a picked group, a group of those who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land. What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? We sought liberty; freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves. This we then sought; this we now believe that we are by way of winning. What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.
What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. And now in that spirit, that spirit of an America which has never been, and which may never be; nay, which never will be except as the conscience and courage of Americans create it; yet in the spirit of that America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America I ask you to rise and with me pledge our faith in the glorious destiny of our beloved country.

Go vote!